Plutonium capable of being used in a nuclear weapon, conventional explosives, and highly toxic chemicals have been improperly packaged or shipped by nuclear weapons contractors at least 25 times in the past five years, according to government documents. While the materials were not ultimately lost, the documents reveal repeated instances in which hazardous substances vital to making nuclear bombs and their components were mislabeled before shipment. That means those transporting and receiving them were not warned of the safety risks and did not take required precautions to protect themselves or the public, the reports say. The risks were discovered after regulators conducted inspections during transit, when the packages were opened at their destinations, during scientific analysis after the items were removed from packaging, or — in the worst cases — after releases of radioactive contaminants by unwary recipients, the Center for Public Integrity’s investigation showed. Only a few, slight penalties appear to have been imposed for these mistakes.
U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry traveled to New Mexico last week, visiting Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. The Los Alamos Daily Post reported the Perry, former governor of Texas, “praised the national labs as a whole and said every country should have at least one lab like the ones we have in the United States.”
Perry also said he was an “extension of the administration” when it comes to climate change: “You’re going to see new ways … to use highly untechnical terms, we’re going to continue to throw some jello at the walls in different places and in different ways because from time to time, you’ll find answers to things you had no idea you were going to find solutions to,” he said. Perry praised nuclear power, did not discount the possibility of expanded nuclear weapon production and said he was surprised by how little people know about the Energy Department. In southern New Mexico, Perry toured the Energy Department’s Carlsbad Field Office and the underground nuclear waste repository.
Spurred by a Four Corners-area water company that for months provided phony information to state regulators, the state House of Representatives has unanimously approved a bill making it a crime for owners or operators of public water systems to knowingly give false reports to the Environment Department. House Bill 511, sponsored by House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, passed on a 66-0 vote Monday night and now goes to the Senate. There was virtually no discussion about the reason for the bill during a brief floor hearing. Complaints last year from customers of the Animas Valley Water Co. eventually prompted the state to order thousands of households to boil their water.
There isn’t enough community interest in the cleanup of the massive Kirtland Air Force Base jet fuel spill to merit the creation of a Restoration Advisory Board. That’s according to a memo sent out by the U.S. Air Force this Monday. Restoration Advisory Boards, or RABs, allow local governments and citizens to become more involved in environmental restoration issues at U.S. Department of Defense facilities. In the memo, Kirtland Commander Col. Eric Froehlich wrote that last year the executive director of Citizen Action, Dave McCoy, delivered a petition with 80 signatures, asking that the federal government create a RAB related to the jet fuel leak and cleanup.
It was not necessarily a crime under New Mexico law for a utility in the Four Corners area to tell regulators its water was fine even as turbid, odorous liquid flowed to customers’ taps. But a measure to make lying to state regulators about water quality a fourth-degree felony is a step closer to becoming law. A committee in the state House of Representatives revived the issue under a new bill with a new sponsor and narrower scope, ending an impasse that had prompted finger pointing over the influence of special interest groups and had upended the usual tough-on-crime dynamics at the Capitol. On Saturday, the new House Bill 511 won bipartisan support in the House Judiciary Committee, which elected 10-2 to advance it to a vote by the full House. Republicans blocked a similar bill last month, even though it was sponsored by a GOP colleague and had the backing of the state Environment Department.
It was a tumultuous week for federal employees. On Monday, President Donald Trump announced a hiring freeze across the government. The administration also suspended social media posts from at least five agencies, including the National Park Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. On top of that, news trickled out that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was freezing all new grants and contracts. While hiring freezes aren’t uncommon, the EPA’s stay appears to be unusual, if not unprecedented.
The numbers from around the globe are in, and it’s official: 2016 was the hottest year on record, again. According to independent analysis from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2016 was the third year in a row to break temperature records. The New York Times collected AccuWeather data for more than 5,000 cities, including Albuquerque, to illustrate temperature and precipitation changes. Albuquerque’s average temperature last year was 2 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, while precipitation fell 2.8 inches short of normal. Globally, the average temperature has risen by 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1880s.
The New Mexico Supreme Court heard oral arguments on a rule related to the state’s regulation of groundwater beneath copper mines last fall. There’s no saying exactly when the court, which heard the case at the end of September, will issue its opinion. But it could be this year. This comes as the price of copper is on the rise after two years of declines. At the end of last year, the metal rallied—and some analysts expect it to do well in 2017.
I’ll admit I took a break from the news over the holiday—a break from writing it and a break from reading it. Now that I’m catching up on what happened around New Mexico, I thought I’d share some of the most important environment news from the past couple of weeks. Because maybe some of these things slipped through your news feed, too. Jobs, jobs, jobs
The Carlsbad Current-Argus reported that Halliburton announced that it’s looking for 200 workers in the Permian Basin as it anticipates ramping up production. According to the story, the energy industry is planning to expand drilling in southern New Mexico and Texas, thanks to a rise in oil prices and increased political support.
Each announcement by President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team about his picks for cabinet positions flares public interest. Whether it’s ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to lead the State Department or former Texas Governor Rick Perry as secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, the appointments provide insight into what the businessman’s presidency might mean for America and the rest of the world. Those appointments will have significant impacts here in New Mexico, which has 23 sovereign Native American tribes, millions of acres of federal lands and an abundance of natural resources like oil, gas, coal, copper and uranium. Not only that, but in the past five years, the state’s environmental regulations and agencies—which might have been able to hold the line against some of the incoming president’s policies—have been weakened during the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez. When it comes to issues like science and environmental regulations, high-level staff picks have long-term impacts on everything from pollution trends and energy policy to the rate at which the Earth’s atmosphere is warming.